Today, diamonds are a crucial part of fashion, jewelry, and science. We propose with diamonds. We get married with diamonds. We wear diamond jewelry. We use diamonds in scientific measuring tools.
However, the history of diamonds probably isn’t as long as you think: diamond engagement rings are only about 500 years old, for example, and diamonds didn’t really become popular until the 19th century.
After the 19th century, improved cutting and polishing techniques led to a rise in the popularity of diamonds around the world. Mining companies spread their influence around the world, harvesting diamonds from remote parts of Africa and the Arctic. Wearing diamonds became fashionable for the average person – not just kings and queens.
Where did the history of diamonds begin? How are diamonds even formed? Why have they become such a fixture in modern times? Today, we’re explaining everything you need to know about the history of diamonds.
The Origin of Diamonds
Before we talk about the history of diamonds in relation to humans, we should explain how the history of a diamond actually begins.
The conditions for the creation of a natural diamond are rare and very specific. Diamonds only form when a unique set of criteria are met.
The fact that these conditions are rare is important. After all, if diamonds formed under common conditions, they wouldn’t be as expensive – or as treasured by humans.
Essentially, diamonds form when carbon-bearing materials are exposed to high pressure while maintaining (relatively) low temperatures. There are only two places on Earth where these conditions are met, including the lithospheric mantle (found below stable continental plates) and the site of a meteorite strike.
In layman’s terms, diamonds are highly compressed forms of carbon. They’re surprisingly similar to coal in their chemical makeup.
How Diamonds Form in the Earth
Diamonds from the lithospheric mantle form at depths between 140 and 190km (87 and 118 miles) beneath the surface of the Earth. Scientists have also discovered diamonds that crystallized at depths as deep as 300km (190 miles).
How do diamonds travel from hundreds of miles beneath the surface of the earth up to the surface? Volcanoes!
Diamond-bearing rock will be carried from the mantle to the Earth’s surface by deep-origin volcanic eruptions. Magma from these eruptions comes from the same layer of the earth where diamonds are formed. Diamonds travel through volcanic pipes, carried by the magma.
After traveling through volcanic pipes, diamonds can be carried around the world. Many diamonds can be found in alluvial deposits, including deposits along existing or ancient shorelines. In rare cases, diamonds have even been found in glacial deposits.
Diamonds from Space
It sounds crazy, but many of the diamonds on our planet today originated in space. There’s a specific type of diamond called carbonado that is found in South America and Africa. This type of diamond is thought to have been deposited via an ancient asteroid impact (about 3 billion years ago).
Not all “space diamonds” are carried by the asteroid itself. Instead, some diamonds form when the asteroid impacts the earth. Small “nanodiamonds” and “microdiamonds” can be found in meteorite impact craters. Scientists use these small diamonds to determine previous asteroid impacts.
Diamonds and Human History: India in the 4th Century BCE
Now that you know the history of how diamonds are made, it’s time to look at diamonds and their impact on human history.
The earliest diamonds date back to India in the 4th century BCE. After diamonds were discovered, they quickly became prized. After all, diamonds look pretty cool even with primitive refining techniques. Early traders also valued diamonds for their hardness and their ability to reflect light. They were one of the few substances that could be used to engrave metal.
Diamonds collected in India were distributed to traders on the Silk Road, who sold the shiny gems throughout Europe, Asia, and the known world.
“Diamond” Comes from a Greek Word
The name “diamond”, by the way, comes from another ancient civilization: the Greeks. “Diamond” is derived from the Greek work “adamas”, which translates to unconquerable – a reference to the gem’s hardness.
It’s easy to appreciate the symbolic meaning behind the word. You can see “unconquerable” as a reference to the fact that your love is “unconquerable”.
How Did Early Civilizations Use Diamonds?
Diamonds may have been discovered in India, but they quickly spread around the world. Over the next thousand years, into the Dark Ages, diamonds would be used for a range of interesting purposes, including:
-Worn as adornments and jewelry
-Used as cutting tools
-Wielded as talismans to ward off evil or provide protection in battle
-Used as a medical aid (some even thought diamonds cured illnesses when ingested)
India was Thought to Be the World’s Only Source of Diamonds Until the 1700s
Up to the 1700s, major diamond deposits had only been discovered in India. A small diamond deposit was found in Brazil in 1725, although it was too small to have a major impact. Until the 18th century, many people in the world just believed that India was the only source of diamonds on earth.
The fact that diamonds were only available in India quickly became a problem. In the 1700s, diamond mines in India were running dry. Investors, diamond companies, and individual prospectors began searching the world for alternative sources.
Major diamond discoveries, however, wouldn’t take place until 1866, when a 15 year old South African boy named Erasmus Jacobs found a massive diamond while exploring the banks of the Orange River, near a small farming village called Hopetown.
Erasmus thought it was just an ordinary pebble. However, it turned out to be a 21.25-carat diamond. Today, that diamond – called the Eureka Diamond – belongs to the people of South Africa. More diamonds would be found along the river in Hopetown, transforming the quiet village into a diamond mecca.
South Africa proved to be a rich source of diamonds. In 1871, an 83.50-carat diamond was found on a shallow hill called Colesberg Kopje. This officially kicked off the South African diamond rush, leading to the first large-scale diamond mining operation in the region, the Kimberly Mine.
The discovery of diamonds in South Africa would permanently change the diamond industry. South African diamonds flooded the market and substantially increased the world’s supply of diamonds, leading to a significant decrease in value.
The drop in value led to a shift in public views towards diamonds: the elite no longer considered diamonds to be a rarity. They began to use colored gems – like emeralds, rubies, and sapphires – in their engagement rings.
In an effort to control the value of diamonds, an Englishman named Cecil John Rhodes formed De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. to try to control the diamond supply. Although the company successfully controlled the supply of diamonds, demand for the gemstone continued to drop. By 1919, the price of diamonds had dropped by nearly 50%.
The Rise of Diamond Engagement Rings
Diamond engagement rings are a staple of modern culture. Where did they come from?
Rings have been used as symbols of commitment since ancient times. Historians will tell you about Romans using “betrothal rings” or “truth rings” to confirm their commitment with a partner.
In Roman times, these rings were made from twisted copper or, in some cases, braided hair. Romans specifically believed that placing the ring on your third finger of your left hand was significant, as the third finger holds a vein called the “vena amorous” that runs directly to the heart.
Romans didn’t always use rings as a symbol of marriage. They were often given as a sign of affection or friendship. They were not always associated with marriage.
The Pope, oddly enough, is the reason we have engagement rings today. In 1215, Pope Innocent III declared that there should be a waiting period between the time when a couple announces they wish to be married and the wedding. Rings were then used to signify a couple’s commitment to each other in the interim period.
Thus, rings soon became a key point of the wedding ceremony, and of marriage in general.
The first use of a diamond engagement ring, however, didn’t occur until 1477, when Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy using a diamond engagement ring. During this time period, diamonds were a rare and luxurious item reserved for the wealthiest upper classes – so this was a big deal for Archduke Maximilian and his future wife.
DeBeers and the Rise of the Modern Diamond
We already mentioned De Beers, the mining conglomerate that attempted to influence the price of diamonds in the early 20th century. We mentioned that De Beers tried – and failed – to control falling diamond prices, leading to a 50% drop in the price of diamonds by 1919.
De Beers, however, didn’t give up. In 1947, De Beers made a decision that would chance the diamond industry once again. De Beers hired a powerful advertising agency named N.W. Ayer. Together, they came up with the slogan, “A diamond is forever”.
The premise of this campaign was that diamonds should be the only choice for engagement rings.
As you can guess, this advertising campaign was largely successful. Today, the use of diamonds to propose is widespread and accepted. About 4 out of 5 engagement rings sold today contain diamonds.
Gem Cutters Adopt to the Growing Diamond Demand
Prior to the 1940s, diamond cutting was still relatively primitive. There wasn’t enough money in diamonds to justify big investments in research or innovation.
As demand for diamonds rose after 1947, things began to change. Companies began to educate consumers and jewelry stores on the difference between good and bad diamonds. Diamond cutting techniques improved. Jewelers experimented with new ways to highlight the visual appeal and presentation of a diamond.
Certain types of diamond shapes and cutting techniques emerged. Round, overall, marquise, square (princess), and rectangular (emerald) diamonds all became popular.
Modern Diamond Mining
Today, the diamond industry is in an interesting place. The world’s diamond deposits are slowly being depleted. Less than 20% of the diamonds pulled from the earth today are considered gem quality, and even fewer (2%) are considered “investment diamonds”.
What do companies do with the remaining diamonds? Approximately 75 to 80% of diamonds pulled from the earth today are used in industrial applications, including grinding, sawing, and drilling.
One of the most impressive stats about diamonds is that you need to mine 250 tons of ore to produce a one-carat, gem-quality stone. That’s why your engagement ring costs $5,000.
Famous Diamonds Throughout History
You now know the history of diamonds in general, but some diamonds are so famous they have their own unique history. Some of the most famous diamonds in the world include:
The Great Star of Africa (530.20 Carats)
Also known as the Star Africa diamond, the Great Star of Africa is the largest cut diamond in the world. The diamond is pear-shaped and has 74 facets. Today, it’s set in the Royal Scepter, which is held with the other Crown Jewels in the Tower of London.
The Star Africa diamond is huge, but it was actually cut from a larger, 3106-carat diamond called Cullinan, which is still the largest diamond ever found. The diamond was discovered at a mine in Transvaal, South Africa. It took jewelers months to determine how to best cut the diamond. Eventually, the diamond was cut into 9 major diamonds and 96 smaller diamonds. It’s thought that the Cullinan was just one half of a much larger diamond, although the other half has never been found.
The Orloff diamond comes with a story straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. It’s believed that the Orlof was once used as the diamond eye of Vishnu’s idol (a Hindu god) at a temple in India. In the 1700s, it was stolen by a French deserter, who then sold the diamond to an English sea captain for 2,000 pounds.
The stone later arrived in Amsterdam, where a Russian count named Grigori Orloff (an ex-lover of Catherine the Great) purchased the diamond for 90,000 pounds, knowing that he could bring it back to Russia to impress Catherine. Legend has it that the diamond was hidden in a priest’s tomb when Napoleon’s Army advanced on Moscow in 1812. Napoleon discovered the priest’s tomb, but was frightened away by a ghost who put a curse on Napoleon and his entire army. Today, the Orloff sits at the Diamond Treasury of Russia in Moscow.
The Blue Hope
Better known as the Hope diamond (named after its purchaser, Henry Thomas Hope), this diamond is associated with a ridiculous string of unfortunate events. The diamond was originally part of a larger diamond brought to Europe from India in the 1600s.
The diamond was stolen during the French Revolution, then sold to Hope in 1830. After inheriting the diamond, Hope’s son lost the family fortune.
An American widow, Mrs. Edward McLean, later acquired the diamond, then watched as her family experienced a string of tragedies. Mrs. McLean lost her fortune. Her only child died from an accident. Mrs. McLean herself eventually committed suicide.
Harry Winston, a New York diamond merchant, bought the Hope diamond in 1949. After many of his clients refused to touch the stone, it was put on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.
Where Does the History of Diamonds Go Next?
The history of diamonds is far from over. Over the past century, the diamond industry has exploded with innovation from leading chemists, physicists, geologists, mineralogists, and oceanographers. We know how diamonds are brought to the earth’s surface, which makes it easier to discover new diamond sources.
Yes, the world’s diamond sources are depleting – but a new source of diamonds is just one meteorite strike away.